It was striking in November’s friendlies against Brazil and Belgium that coach Vahid Halilhodzic decided to drop Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda from the Japan squad.
But in a World Cup year, Japanese fans will be hoping that the superstar trio returns for the next international action in March, just three months before their opening Group H match in Russia.
Here are five Japan football wishes for 2018.
1. Make peace with the big three
Halilhodzic chose to go into November internationals with an eye on the future, and then fielded an even more youthful side in December’s East Asian Championship on home soil as South Korea beat Japan in the final.
But given that the Brazil and Belgium friendlies were played in Europe, in easy reach for the two Shinjis, it was a meaningful snub.
The performances of the three biggest names in qualification for the 2018 World Cup were mixed, especially Kagawa. However, while Halilhodzic is likely to bring them back into the fold at some point, it could affect the atmosphere in the camp, amid rumours that the Bosnian boss does not get on with the decorated attackers.
Honda, now with Pachuca in Mexico, is aiming to play in a third consecutive World Cup, having scored in 2010 and 2014. Okazaki also appeared in both tournaments, while Kagawa was in the 2014 squad.
With Japan looking to bounce back from a dismal performance in Brazil four years ago, Halihodzic will have a job in his hands to ensure that their reintegration into the squad is smooth and has a positive impact.
2. Learn to beat South American teams
Japan have never beaten South American opposition in eight meetings at the World Cup and the Confederations Cup.
At the World Cup, the Samurai Blue have played four and lost them all. There was Argentina in 1998, Brazil in 2006 and then, the really painful one, a second-round penalty shootout elimination at the hands of Paraguay in South Africa. The last World Cup ended with a 4-1 loss to Colombia.
The next one starts against the same opponents in Group H. It is the perfect opportunity to show that Japan have improved since the huge disappointment of Brazil 2014 where, despite massive distractions, they managed to earn only one point out of a possible nine.
If their stay in Russia is to be longer, Japan can’t afford to lose to Colombia. It is a major test for the coach and his attempt to get the Japanese playing a tougher more European style.
Group H, which also contains Poland and Senegal, is wide open, with the unpredictable Japan capable of finishing in first or fourth.
A draw against Colombia would be a decent result, while a win would signal that this is a team who mean business and have overcome their South America complex.
3. More of the same in the Champions League
Urawa Red Diamonds lifted the 2017 AFC Champions League trophy, the first time that the continent’s top club prize headed to Japan since Gamba Osaka triumphed in 2008. That gap was too long.
In between, China and South Korea had dominated. That meant that Urawa’s triumph was a sweet one. Nobody could say it was undeserved, as they took on some of the toughest opposition that Asia had to offer.
They finished above former champions Western Sydney Wanderers and ex-finalists FC Seoul in the group stage, as well as the big-spending Shanghai SIPG. In the end, the Reds defeated Al Hilal in the final.
Urawa won’t be allowed to defend their title after failing to qualify through the 2017 J.League. But a repeat success from another J.League club would be very welcome indeed.
4. J.League clubs to be savvier
It has long been an issue with fans that J.League clubs let some of the best talent in Asia head to Europe for fees that can best be described as paltry.
Shinji Kagawa cost Borussia Dortmund around $400,000 in 2010 when he was regarded as a very hot prospect and was already a Japanese international. Shinji Okazaki left for Stuttgart in 2011 for even less, while Samurai Blue captain Makoto Hasebe went to Wolfsburg for nothing.
This week, Yosuke Ideguchi signed a four-and-a-half year deal with English club Leeds United, and will be sent out on loan to Cultural Leonesa in the Spanish second tier for the rest of the season. It was an undisclosed fee, but Japanese media reports put the figure at a disappointing $700,000.
The 21-year-old midfielder has been one of the best players in Japan, and was named 2016 J.League Rookie of the Year. Clubs need to be receiving more for the players they help develop.
Korean counterparts have done better in this regard for years. Just last year Kwon Chang-Hoon’s move to Dijon in France netted his K-League club not far short of $2 million.
It is a figure that is still relatively cheap, but one that marks better business than J.League counterparts.
5. More Southeast Asian success stories
For years, J.League clubs have been signing players from Southeast Asia, hoping to find a player who can contribute on the pitch as much as he can do off it.
Authorities in Tokyo have been trying to find new markets, audiences and fans for Japanese football. Regional standouts such as Le Cong Vinh of Vietnam and Indonesia’s Irfan Bachdim were huge stars in their homelands, but had little impact in Japan.
A second success could really open the floodgates.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.